How To Learn Languages Like A Child (Yes It Is Possible)
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
Long overdue update time!
We’re expecting our second child (daughter) next week.
It really amazes me how much life can change in a few short years. Seems like only yesterday I was gallivanting around the world as a single guy with nothing else to do but learn languages all day.
Fatherhood has kept be busy (the fulfilling kind of busy!).
My 20 month-old son has made enormous leaps in his language learning over the past few weeks.
I’m sure most parents can relate:
Your child hits these remarkable stages where their language development suddenly (as if overnight) goes from ‘wow’ to ‘WOW’.
I shared at the beginning of this new parenting journey that I wanted to follow along and document my son’s first language development. It’s been an opportunity to observe and experience first-hand the things I studied and speculated on in college.
Instead of studying other people’s kids’ learning, I’ve been able to observe my own.
I’ve always rejected the idea that adults are unable imitate the process of children‘s first language development and I’ve finally had the chance to begin properly verifying that belief.
Importantly: verifying that my own adult language learning approach indeed works.
I’ve been watching my son’s language development closely.
We’ve just reached a stage where he is repeating literally everything we say to him.
This includes words and phrases he’s never heard before. He’ll try to say what he hears the first time even when his attempt is wrong.
He’s trying to learn and his skills are snowballing.
He associates utterances with objects, sensations, moods, people and places.
My son also recently started:
- Using final consonants – e.g. ‘Nigh’ became ‘Nigh-t’.
- Using 3 syllable words – e.g. “Octopus” is ‘ot-a-pa’
- Using words together – “dad fo” (dad’s phone), “pe mowa” (Pete’s mower), “shyit da” (sit down), “fit it” (fix it), “hepe mama” (helping mama), “dada are u” (Dad, where are you?).
- Comprehending larger sentences at normal speed – he’ll not only understand single word commands but also natural speed, full sentences (although it’s hard to tell if he’s understanding the entire sentence or just identifying the key words that stand out to him).
He’s learned quite a few letters of the alphabet too, associating the letters with names and objects (although this is a very different skill development).
Natural language learning is pure sound mimicry
At the end of the day, natural language learning is 100% mimicry of sound patterns.
We hear sounds constantly and we repeat those sounds to the best of our ability. It happens often enough (thousands and thousands of times) that it sticks.
In the case of a young child like my son or an adult learning a language with unusual sounds, you’re limited in what you repeat by the sounds you already know.
It’s all about familiar mouth mechanics.
For example, in Arabic you might hear a guttural ‘ain sound but reproduce it as a simple ‘a’ vowel because that’s the closest sound you’re capable of as an English speaker.
My son repeats everything now.
But he might repeat a word like ‘computer’ as ‘pata’ – the letter ‘c’, the consonant cluster ‘m+p’, the ‘yu’ sound are all unknowns to him for now.
But he is repeating it in his own way.
And he’s repeating what I call ‘chunks’ (a concept that I personally developed on the back of Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach).
I mentioned a few examples above – ‘fix it’, ‘sit down’, ‘dad’s phone’.
My son has acquired these expressions and many others as whole patterns – he didn’t acquire individual words and grammar to build the expressions.
This is how language is naturally acquired.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed my son start to use the possessive suffix “‘s” when talking about people’s property – “papa’s car” for example. He’s actually acquiring and learning how to use grammar without any kind of explicit education.
Just exposure + repetition.
Adults can (and I would argue should) learn the same way.
My ‘repeat-what-you-hear’ experiment
First of all, I’m also due for an update on Greek.
I realize it’s been a long time since I shared about it here and hopefully once the baby arrives and things calm down for us, I’ll have time to provide some detailed updates.
I’ve been experimenting over the course of my Greek study.
As well as Greek, I made a list of a few totally unknown languages to me (Thai, Hungarian and Mongolian mainly) so I could put the ‘repeat-what-you-hear’ process to the test for myself.
This is as a way of proving to myself that my method does not just apply to languages that I’m familiar with.
That even a completely foreign and unknown pattern of sounds can be mimicked.
I wanted to take a few languages with sounds that are very new to me and see how well I can listen and repeat whole chunks without studying anything.
No reading text or transcriptions either if I can help it. Just exposure and repetition of the patterns I hear.
In essence: doing what my son is doing with English.
These recordings show what a typical “study” session of mine looks like.
As you can see, it’s extremely repetitive and prone to mistakes in the beginning (which is why I’m always reluctant to record video demonstrating the start-to-finish process of learning a language).
Over time, these repetitive sound patterns get ingrained into your mind (this has definitely been the case with me and Greek).
Patterns become habitual.
Grammar, vocab and ‘what sounds right’ start to become natural.
Traditional language study and reading can actually get in the way of learning
I find that when I read text, it often gets in the way of natural acquisition.
Instead of letting your ears get attuned to the sound patterns you’re hearing and allowing the mechanics of your mouth to adjust to mimicry, you’re focusing heavily on visual representation (i.e. letters on a page). As a visual-spatial learner, it’s extra challenging.
When we speak our native language, we don’t do this.
Reading is a totally separate (and much later) skill that is totally unrelated to spoken fluency (though it does help you build vocabulary).
This is why I always emphasize that grammar study and literacy skills are learned in school years after you’ve already become totally fluent in your first language.
I don’t want to be visualizing text when I try to speak a new language – I want to be visualizing the object I’m talking about and totally attuned to the mood, intonation and flow of the sound I’m producing/hearing.
I’ll share more on my process shortly.
What are your thoughts?
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